Guest Post: Do We Really Need To Learn Calculus in School?

This guest post first appeared here on White Group Mathematics, 28 June 2012.

When I received a request from Frederick asking me to contribute a guest post on his blog, my first reaction was maths? What do I know about maths?

He then clarified that I didn't actually have to write something on maths, just anything on education but the obsessive personality that I am thought a maths-related post would be more appropriate.

Objectively, I think I have enough of a logical brain to tackle basic maths. I coached both my kids in primary school maths and there's something about the puzzle-solving aspects of primary school maths that appeal to me. My personal experience with maths was generally positive too - I sailed through maths in primary school and E Maths at 'O' levels.

However, this led me to erroneously believe that I could tackle Maths C at 'A' levels even though I hadn't studied Add Maths at 'O' levels. Boy, was I wrong. I sat in oblivion throughout the 2 years, despite my classmates' best efforts to help. The tutor practically gave up on me and skipped past me whenever he asked my classmates a question. In the end, by a miracle, I achieved a C grade, to which the tutor reacted epically - "You?? You got a C???"

There's just something about the strings of random numbers and letters that baffle my mostly right brain. Sometimes, they're attached to letters, other times, with funny incomprehensible squiggles and notations. Worst still, sometimes the numbers don't even line up in the same row (miniature ones written above or below other numbers like they're an afterthought). They're like Morse code in an alien language.

I have a PRC friend and back in China, he was in the gifted programme for maths. He shared how in China, they only have gifted programmes for maths and science - such is the emphasis on what is commonly perceived as the pragmatic and "superior" subjects.

"What about China's great legacy of literature and the arts?" I asked. He explained that the government felt China's history in the arts caused the country its economic decline so they are now over-compensating. In fact, he told me that all the current China leaders have backgrounds in maths or science.

He feels that this complete neglect of the humanities is a great loss to Chinese kids. He cites his own example where he wishes that he had learned more soft skills like communications, people management and so on so he can better function at work. He says up to today, he has yet to find a use for any of the calculus he'd studied (even though he once worked as an engineer).

As someone who's always been in the humanities underdog camp, it isn't hard for me to sympathise with him. But I got to thinking, there are actually two different controversies at work here.

The more obvious one is clearly the maths/science-humanities struggle. Which is more important? It would be easy for me to side with the humanities but my answer is both, and I'm not just trying to be politically correct. The maths and sciences set the foundation for logical thinking and deduction, there's no denying the importance of this. It's not enough just to be able to give customers the correct change or work out how much that bag of apples at the supermarket costs. That's why even though my daughter doesn't have the aptitude for maths, I tell her that having a good foundation of maths is important.

As for the humanities, well, it fosters critical thinking and deeper reflection into the intangibles, into human behaviour. Most of this world is grey, not black-and-white. Solutions often can't be calculated via a fixed formula or measured on a quantitative scale, and the humanities teach us how to wrap our minds around the fuzzy and give it meaning. In this connected world where people brashly push forth their arguments and opinions, it's more important than ever not to blindly believe what you read and to question everything with a critical mind. (Yes, including my post).

But beyond the superficial maths/science vs humanities conundrum lies another conflict in my friend's statement. He felt that the years he spent learning calculus would have been better spent learning skills like communication because he could use it in real life. It's this intrinsic belief that in education, something must be usable to be considered useful.

Granted, if you're training to be a mechanic, I sure hope whatever you learn will be useful enough to enable you to fix my car. But this idea that education has to be practical is essentially another left brain argument. To me, it dilutes the value of education because it reduces education to yet another commodity.

It means that if you don't intend to draw, there's no point in learning art. By that same token, learning Chinese is needed only if we intend to do future business with China. I've always thought this moot point as I suspect all the enterprising Chinese entrepreneurs are mastering English as we speak, for the same pragmatic reasons.

Education is not the same as training, it has to have a higher purpose. That's been one of the main criticisms of the Singapore education system, that it doesn't educate individuals, it trains them. Beyond learning how to read and write, count apples and how gravity works, education should enable us to be more thinking versions of ourselves.

At every level, we should have this, to different degrees. At primary school, it could be as simple as asking questions about a science experiment. At secondary school, critical analysis of a social issue. At JC and university? Well, why not calculus?

Right upfront, I'll say the only thing I know about calculus is that he's a character in the Tintin comics. I looked at the universal authority on all things aka wikipedia and here's what it says: Calculus (Latin: a small stone for counting) is a branch of mathematics focused on limits, functions, derivatives, integrals and infinite series.

Ahhhh... nope. Catch no ball.

But despite my ignorance about calculus, I'm pretty certain that calculus does make you think deeper about certain concepts of maths. And as long as something you learn in school helps you exercise your brain in thinking deeper and more laterally, chances are, it's valuable. You just don't know it. The same way that many people think literature isn't useful cos nobody spouts poetry at work in real life. But literature makes you read between the lines, analyse human behaviour and appreciate the subtleties of the written word, all of which is important in life.

So I wouldn't write off calculus just yet. (Do I hear Frederick heave a sigh of relief?) As I've always advised parents, when your child has to choose his or her subject combinations, instead of saying, "take the most useful one" (which is only marginally better than "take the subjects you can score in" or "take the subjects that can earn you the most money"), tell them to take the subjects they're passionate about. Passion ignites learning and from there, they will have a better chance of extracting value from it and becoming more thinking individuals.

That's what education is all about.


Monica Lim is a consummate Singaporean blogger who has been sharing her thoughts about the local education scene over at her blog "Of Kids And Education". She is also the founder of Hedgehog Communications, a corporate writing outfit.